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Teens get closer to world stage in Model UN event at Winthrop

When a nation tried to change a proposed resolution calling for an international effort to increase drug prevention policies by educating young people and supporting nations susceptible to drug trafficking, Jack Watkins, a 17-year-old delegate representing Russia, fought against it.

The amendment would've given incentives to farmers in Afghanistan and elsewhere who gave up growing opium poppy plants, which can be processed into heroin, and switched to other crops. Farmers who cooperated would have access to education opportunities.

Watkins argued that was unfair. Some farmers might not be able to change crops, he said, and denying education to them and their families is against the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights.

The amendment was shot down Thursday by a plurality of the 44 voting nations at Winthrop University's annual Model United Nations conference.

For 34 years, the college has hosted the gathering, which attracts teams from high schools across the state that come to compete in the three-day event.

Model UN competitions simulate the actual meetings of world leaders. Students take on the roles of diplomats, researching their assigned nation's history, interests and current issues. They write and submit resolutions, then gather in committees at competitions and debate them.

The contests take place around the world, and top teams can win their way to foreign meets.

"It's a fantastic opportunity to engage in the world as it stands," said Northwestern High senior Ryan Simpson, 17.

At Winthrop, which offers a course called The United Nations, university students organize the conference and guide the high schoolers.

This year's conference started Wednesday, with a speech by David Birdsey, a foreign service officer. By mid-Thursday, the competition was at full tilt with diplomats scurrying to meet with allies to discuss arguments for and against international proposals.

Judges will tabulate points today and declare individual winners as well as overall team winners. Every high school in York County has a team in the running. Lancaster and Indian Land High are also competing.

Even as students' enthusiasm runs high this week, organizers worry that Model UN could become a casualty of budget cuts.

This year, organizers said, five schools dropped out because it was too expensive to travel and pay for lodging.

"It's one thing we're really sad to see," said Liz Kelly, a 21-year-old Winthrop senior and Model UN secretary general.

The experience is invaluable, said Cathy Griffin, a Northwestern High social studies teacher who leads the school's Model UN club.

"It teaches you to think and see things from another person's, another country's and another culture's perspective," said Griffin, who plans to retire this summer after 31 years with high school Model UN teams. "It teaches them research. It teaches them debate. It teaches them to think on their feet.

"These kids know more about international politics than most adults."

Griffin worries that after she leaves, her school's program will fade.

Northwestern's budget for its Model UN club has been shrinking over the last five years, she said. This year, it's at $1,200. And with class sizes expected to grow next school year as the faculty shrinks, Griffin doubts that a teacher will find time to take on Model UN.

That's a shame, Watkins said.

"I've learned more about history and the world through Model UN," he said.

In preparing to debate the resolution put forth by his classmate Hunt Smith, who's representing Afghanistan, Watkins read a book about poppy cultivation in the south Asian country. He keeps up with current international events online and by watching the news.

"It's pretty much like my hobby," he said.

Joanna Bryant, 21, a Winthrop senior who, along with classmates Kelly and Jamie Singleton, 23, spent eight months planning the conference, said participating in Model UN has influenced her career plans.

She first took part as a Lancaster High sophomore. This year is her fourth as a Model UN college delegate. After graduation, she plans to teach English in South Korea.

"It can teach anyone international relations," Kelly said. And it reaches "every type of learning that can go on in these high schoolers' minds."

Organizers said they plan to start fundraising efforts to help offset costs next year. Singleton, who graduated from Fort Mill High, is confident the program will continue.

"We have been here for 34 years," he said. "We have no intentions of ever stopping."

Kelly added: "Passion will keep this program alive."